Hi all – Welcome. I’m deeply appreciative that we’re here, right now, ready to grow together over the next few weeks
My aim is through the Incubator to share what we’ve learned about building Community Purchasing Alliance in D.C. these past several years. One of the things I’m just learning now is that a successful co-op as much about the process, the culture, and the people as anything else.
We’re hoping we can all learn from each other by creating a space where we show up with care and generosity to deepen our own self-awareness and look deeper into ourselves for that defining question: the quest that unleashes that deeper power and purpose for our lives.
My goal with the Incubator is to share an experience of the core leadership frameworks that have helped CPA get where we are, and that we believe will help CPA live into this next phase of growth and implementation.
In the Incubator we want you to synthesize all that you know about what’s wrong with our economy and our community institutions. These are the truths we know in and through our bodies, the traumas we’ve endured and those of close friends and family. When we combine that knowledge with a more holistic process, we unlock the transformative potential of your local work and the federated work of this broader collective you are joining. We want the deep wisdom and genius that’s inside of you to be unleashed.
Originally, we, the Colorado Team, had decided we would post our response together. I’ve decided to go ahead and do an initially posting since so much time has passed.
We have met and done an initial review and business plan but are working on getting more detail.
Here are some thoughts:
Within 6-12 months we hope to have our initial partners and implement our first shared purchasing contract. As a result, it would be great to have from CPA some sample contract language, member contracts and more detailed information thatwill be needed starting early in 2020. The more we can harvest from CPA DC the better!. In addition, as we start looking at funders it will be important to be able to make a case for both direct grants and investments. How do we coalesce investment partners into a large enough fund? What kind of legal language and agreements do we need with potential investors?
We would absolutely like to maintain contact with others. This initial cohort has been very helpful and supportive. We have already scheduled a December check in phone call with our group and I anticipate will continue with monthly calls during 2020. A contact list with everyone’s name would be helpful as well as those who attended the workshop in DC. I like the idea of updates and ongoing occasional questions or prompts.
Based on our initial numbers we will need at least $25,000 in startup for an organizer for the first six months of 2020. At that time, we will likely need to move to a full-time coordinator and other support which will mean an additional subsidy of at least $35,000 for year 2. In additional to start up funds, templates for contracts, Mous, membership, etc. will be essential as well as some initial expertise in the areas we hope to begin.
We have already been meeting on a regular basis with our small group and have occasionally invited others to join us. I do feel confident that we will be able to have a strong business plan that will move us forward. We have a good core group, identified our initial lead organization, and key people. We will be posting a larger feasibility plan but for current next steps:
Gather a larger contingent of key stakeholders by February 28th.
Identify some initial funding resources by the end of the first quarter.
Get buy in from key churches and Jubilee ministries within the Episcopal Church and Lutheran Church.
Identify the oversight and management structure for our local version of the CPA.
Firstly, apologies for being late, although I did give Felipe and my fabulous #teamtuesday a heads up that would be the case. Also I’m not sick which is just a disaster. But I digress.
I’m really glad I joined this incubator. First and foremost it has put me into relationship with some phenomenal individuals and fellow justice-seekers that I hope to remain in contact with. We actually already have one follow up set up for December! 🙂 Thank you #teamtuesday for brightening my 6:50am-8:20am tuesdays! Special thanks to Juan for guest starring in #teamtuesday.
Ok, so on to address this prompt:
I have three important meetings set up for the next two
weeks which will largely determine whether launching CPA in LA becomes a
part-time project for me in January and a central project by 2021, or whether it
will need to be a good idea on the backburner until 2021. The short and simple
version of this comes down to:
1) Is there seed funding available,
and if so, how much? (“Meeting” #1)
2) Are the local IAF affiliate and
PICO affiliate willing to put time into credentialing me and/or another
contracted individual to conduct feasibility meetings with decision makers
within target institutions? (Meetings 2
3) Less importantly, but on my mind
also is: Are there 2-3 key partners (ideally from the local affiliates but not
necessarily) who would be willing to collaboratively guide this process, with
In filling out the feasibility excel document I decided to
make two versions:
Assuming there is only enough funding
($15,000-$20,000) to support contracting me outside of my full-time employment
to meet with potential members, do the requisite research, and be in a position
by the end of 2020 to launch a steering committee and roll out a first
contract. Below are my best guesses at the type of support that would be needed
at the various month-marks:
3 months: Establish hourly rate, payment
mechanism and contract, organize data and written resources within a clear
folder, 1 on 1s with CPA DC staff and sector-specific tutorials, 30-minute
weekly calls to check in.
6 months: Site visit to meet with most
interesting/interested leaders, dedicated time to workshop first potential
12 months: Editing and reviewing first contract,
invitation and support in attending CPA-expansion staff meeting over a weekend
to discuss lessons learned and workshop issues that are arising.
Assuming there is enough funding
($100,000-$120,000) to support 3-4 part-time contractors with deep connections
in the community along with one full time organizer getting trained, conducting
feasibility meetings, helping with logistics around emails, group meetings, and
related activities. In this scenario the consultants and staff would function
as a de-facto founding committee and could simultaneously work on founding the
co-operative from an organizational standpoint as well as pushing forward the
first contracts. (This is what I have in
mind before the important meetings and before talking with Juan about his
ideas/commission model, which I’m intrigued to consider) Below are my best
guesses at the type of support that would be needed at the various month-marks:
3 months: Establish hourly rates and contract
with contractors and staff , payment mechanism, organize data and written
resources within a clear folder, zoom meetings with CPA DC staff and
sector-specific tutorials, 30-minute weekly calls to check in.
6 months: Site visit to meet with most
interesting/interested leaders, dedicated time to workshop first potential
12 months: Editing and reviewing first contract,
invitation and support in attending CPA-expansion staff meeting over a weekend
to discuss lessons learned and workshop issues that are arising.
I didn’t make an excel document for it, but there is a third
option I have in mind in which over the course of the next two weeks I discover
that in fact the only piece of founding CPA in LA missing is funding and
for me to make sure the right people have access to the relationships and
resources the CPA DC and CPA incubator provide. I would love to continue to be
involved, and in order to be held accountable for outcomes and for reasons of
economic justice and the high value I place on my time I would need there to be
funding to do so. However, if it makes the most sense for me not to be
involved, I will be an enthusiastic cheerleader and supporter of the process.
I think whether or not an initial investment could or would be paid back depends on several things I don’t have enough clarity about quite yet. I can imagine CPA LA being asked to chose between an initial investment that gets paid back via yearly dues to the CPA LA/national organization or deciding to repay in full and be independent.
And with that, it is 10pm and I must most definitely sleep. I’m excited and curious to see where this might all lead. Los Angeles is most definitely ready for this model, and I’m very hopeful I can be part of bringing the various actors to the table to make it as impactful as possible. I’m excited to have a community to continue working on it with.
Oh, but I’ve stopped working on my splits. (Shoot.)
The Incubator has been a truly rich, inspiring experience for me. Thank you to everyone who contributed to making this such a supportive community.
After starting out with an idea for a project, scrapping that idea, and needing time to discover and embrace the possibilities that have been right in front of me from the start, I’ve decided to carry the work of the Incubator forward by- as the title of this post suggests :)- starting the conversation about CPA in Detroit.
This means engaging with my network in a new way. It means opening up about my disappointment over the missed opportunities that I see for business support organizations to promote alternative models of business development- models that prioritize community-wealth building. It means inviting people to explore with me what it could look like to use the CPA model here as one tool or practice among others that can collectively form broader movement to promote a more equitable local economy.
My next steps for this work are to:
Know my stuff.
I still have plenty to learn about what CPA is, how it operates today, the nuts and bolts. Since I wasn’t focused on CPA for half of my time in the Incubator, I pretty much gave myself a pass to not have to dig in too deep on understanding the mechanics of it or understanding the nuance in terms of how it is being imagined and reimagined for implementation in other cities.
In addition to reading through the materials that have been so generously provided, I also want to talk to people in the cohort about their specific CPA aspirations. To what extent are they hoping to tweak the model to match the unique needs/interests of their communities? To what extent are they looking to copy and paste the model as is?
Read through the CPA materials, watch the videos (November 30, 2019)
Check in with folks from the cohort who are actually thinking through how to best bring the model to life in their context will be an important action step (December 7, 2019)
Check in with Felipe for feedback on the talking points for my one on ones and convening. (December 14, 2019)
Have one on ones.
I’ve brainstormed a list of people in my entrepreneurship network (and/or people in their networks) with whom I’d like to start. The goal of the one on ones from my perspective is to gain a deeper understanding of people’s current work (understanding the landscape), gauge people’s interest in doing business differently/ creating a more equitable economy, and, if it makes sense, to invite them to participate in the larger convening.
I think one of the biggest gains from these meetings will be to come out of them with an understanding of what different efforts in different pockets of the city are aimed at community wealth building, coop development, or economic justice.
Schedule/have one on ones with the 20 people on my list. (January 30, 2020)
Keep track of my notes from each meeting!
Host a convening of like minds.
The goals of the meeting, as I see them now, will be to 1) provide space for invitees to network and learn about each other’s work and 2) use CPA as the ‘hook’ or the thing that brings them together for learning, reflecting, and engaging with one another around an idea.
There’s already energy in pockets of Detroit around efforts to build a more just, equitable economy. How can that energy be harnessed and amplified by bringing people together to network and build connections, and also to explore what CPA could look like in Detroit.
Host the convening (February 28, 2019)
Follow up + next steps
The results of the one on ones and the convening will dictate next steps. I will share those with the group.
Making the best use of the next 8 months is where its at
Alright, this is the last post of this 6-week series on exploring the CPA model for me personally and Miami as well. There’s a bittersweet feeling in having this experience end, but at the same time it is clear that nothing is really ending, we’re just beginning.
As many of you know, I’ve been embarking on a sort of personal journey in parallel that predates the adventures of CPA, which is applying for my MBA. Assuming I end up going, I have about 8 months to get CPA to a meaningful place before I have to disengage (at least partially) from it. So this post is not only going to be focused on the planning for how to get CPA Miami off the ground, but it will also be my own personal plan for what I personally hope to achieve with CPA. Felipe and his team have placed a great deal of faith in me and I want to honor that to the fullest extent of my abilities.
Since we’re tackling CPA as a project within our organization, there are distinct benefits and challenges to incubating in this manner, so I’ll also be drawing on Prompt #3 to take a look at our edge as a geography and as an organization.
This exercise was based on a top-down market sizing effort of Miami’s faith-based institutions, charter schools and retirement/assisted living communities (a huge market in Florida).
In summary, we found 270 houses of worship in Miami, 140 charter schools and close to 900 assisted living facilities (I’m having our analyst double check for hidden duplicates, because this seems like too much).
For a quick estimation exercise, we assumed that the faith institutions and charter schools accomodate to the following size distribution:
50% of them are “small”
25% are medium
15% are large
5% are Very large
5% are very very large
Then, it is a matter of thinking realistically how many institutions we can engage, enroll, and maintain relationships with in the first year and then each year thereafter.
I’m going to assume that, in a year, we can get 20 of each on our side. This means we’ll have 60 total users. Then if we assume that the conversion from users to members is 33%, which is the approximate ratio CPA operates at in D.C if I recall correctly, then we’ll have 20 member owners. To get 60 participants is going to involve getting 5 to sign up per month on average. Given a conversion ratio of 33%, we would need to have 15 intro meetings per month. This may seem ambitious, but we may get a good set of intros at the beginning that could launch us in that direction.
I’ll give all of this a little more thought in the coming days and probably for my reflection, but I’d like to sit down and run this by my team and then go from there.
Also, a little extra side note: I am thinking about how we can get additional organizers to give us introductions and get some skin in the game when it comes to connecting us with other potential members for CPA. Along these lines I am considering an incentive scheme like what Isaac from Boston suggested at annual meeting.
I know the most interesting one I’ve seen is AFLAC, where they give ~50% of the commission for 3-6 months to the person who closes the deal, then 25-30% thereafter provided they are “managing the account and relationship”. We could do something similar here but split between the multiple roles (connect to decision-maker, close the deal, process the contracts, nurture the relationship while, on the MBE side, establish relationship with vendors, negotiate and execute the deal, monitor the working relationship between provider and member + conflict resolution). Also there could be multiple outcomes to target beyond closing contracts like securing membership (and dues), and for group meeting attendance. This would also allow us to financially motivate other organizing groups to lend their contacts and open the door for us.
It’ll take some number crunching to see if/how this could make sense, but it could lead somewhere.
For the next part of the prompt, I’ll detail my planned next steps for the incubator:
As you think about your next 3 months, 6 months, 12 months, what support and resources do you anticipate would be most helpful from me/Felipe & the CPA national team?
In the next 3 months, I want to deep dive on the relational meetings. My goal is to have all the relational meetings needed to get a clear sense of who the early adopters will be (recalling the threshold tests developed by CPA’s board in 2017). 3-5 meetings per week for 12 weeks should give us a good sense. In parallel, we will be gathering information and building out network of MBEs and double down on funding efforts. I expect our first group meeting to happen hopefully within this window or the next.
In 6 months, I want to be knee deep in establishing the first set of contracts between these institutions. I also want to have a clear sense of where we are on capacity building partnerships that can support us in delivering the value to the institutions.
In 12 months I’ll probably no longer be physically around, but for the last set of months I’m there I’ll want to help train the next person and handing off all the knowledge I can. In 12 months I’d like to have several contracts already active and have strong momentum when it comes to finding new institutions and establishing new contracts.
Would you like to keep relating to other participants in this incubator? What could you imagine that looking like to be most fruitful for you?
Yes, we think we’ll end up having a zoom check-in twice a week. I think it’ll also be useful to drive accountability and have a peer group whose knowledge and experience we can draw from and contribute to.
One of my main projects over the next 6-12 months will be initiating and developing funding relationships with investors, lenders, and foundations. What resources do you think would be most helpful, that you realistically can deploy and on what time horizons?
We’re going to be sending out grant applications as soon as possible. Any past grant applications or documents made for funders that we could use as a template would save us time.
Any actual funds we could get from CPA centrally can greatly accelerate our efforts. As mentioned in a prior post, my organization is becoming more and more used to the idea of this project being one of our cores moving forward, but since we’re an actual organization, we have a “heavy” structure that needs funding to be maintained. While we may not be the lean mean 1-man shop Felipe was at the time, we have a powerful starting point with my boss’ connections, my drive and wit, and our analyst’s sponge brain. Any request that CPA may have for us to help them make the case to funders, we’re on board to support.
Which leaders at key institutions do you know already or do you know you MUST get into relationship with that will make your critical path much easier?
PACT Miami, a faith-based organizing group and other related groups are key, including the archdiocese of Miami which my boss has deep connections with.
(More groups in the coming days)
More than likely, it’s
going to be you. Do you need to be the
leader/organizer/agitator/visionary/fundraiser/doer to make this
Thresholds and timelines
As with any start-up or new venture, there are always a series of benchmarks or thresholds that you usually set out — if we get to there, we’ll have made it. If we don’t get X by Y date, then we’re not likely to be able to get to where we’re going, so it would make more sense to stop — versus continue down a trajectory that wouldn’t get us there. What are your threshold goals for yourself and on what time horizon?
These can be inferred from the timeline set out, but will elaborate more on the rules of thumb I use to cut a project half-way through later.
What specific contracts and which specific decision-makers and which institutions need to be part of the first 3-6 months and 6-12 months? What key thresholds do you need at what specific points to show that you’re making it to break-even? How much time and money do you need to get to the key benchmarks that make sense for you and your region?
Will elaborate more on this later.
Do you believe in your own leadership and entrepreneurship enough to take the money and then be able to repay it — perhaps on a 4-10 year time horizon?
I have nothing else but the faith in myself and my word. Of course I’m coming up against fear as I write this. Of course my monsters emerge when I set out to do this work. We all know why this work is important and meaningful and has a place in the world right now of all times. If we fail, let is be spectacularly, but not because we did not try. It will be after having given it everything we had and with no regrets. And when we succeed, it will be transformative for how these anchor institutions see themselves in their communities and society. It will be transformative to the MBEs who will be able to hire and support the institutions they frequent every day as part of their lives as citizens. This will be an example of the power of collaboration and decisiveness for an otherwise silo’d and incrementalist group of anchor institutions and social impact initiatives.
I have learned so much from this process and from each person in it, I am overwhelmed with gratitude and admiration for everyone! I am looking forward to our Team Tuesday reunion in December. I have found the weekly check-ins incredibly generative and a great source of support/accountability for this work.
I have mentioned to Felipe that part
of this process for me is about learning how co-ops work so that I can support
efforts here in Miami to build CPA, and also because I am interested in a
possible Florida restorative justice (RJ) practitioners’ co-op that is focused
on identifying, recruiting, training, and providing opportunities for youth (especially
youth of color) to grow their own RJ practice skills so that they can be financially
compensated for their ongoing RJ facilitation work in communities around the
Next steps in south Florida:
For CPA Miami, I am looking forward to following Juan Francisco’s lead,
along with the leadership of his organization, Future Partners. My hope is to
be of use where it makes sense as I am able! I know that between Juan Francisco’s
personality and business acumen, and Future Partners’ role in the Miami community,
the outlook for CPA here is extremely sunny!
am hopeful that there will be opportunities to connect Barry University as a
possible anchor institution, as well as building relationships with congregations
affiliated with Miami PACT and also helping us get connected with folks who are
doing great environmental/energy work in Florida (a whacky regulatory environment!).
I am hopeful that through the BE Lab at Barry, I can help identify and recruit students
(particularly first-generation students of color from linguistically diverse
and low-income communities in south Florida) who could eventually be vendors
for the CPA venture in Miami.
For the Restorative Justice worker co-op,
need to following with Ron at tilde to see if he would be willing to share
their initial budget with me. I have no idea what is required for this kind of
co-op start-up budget (when we spoke, he focused mainly on the cost of
purchasing equipment for the translation services, but there must have been
other expenses related to marketing/advertising, accounting, and office space?).
January 2020 is the FRJA (Florida Restorative
Justice Association) meeting, which will be an opportunity to publicly
pitch the co-op to the most likely members.
course, I anticipate that there will be a lot of individual meetings leading up
to this gathering, beginning with a meeting next week with two RJ facilitators/community
organizers in Miami who have a lot of influence among youth doing RJ work in
the Miami area.
Depending on how the meeting goes at FRJA, I will have a better sense of the need/interest in this potential co-op in Florida. At that point, it would be awesome to get CPA’s advice (and partnership?) on how to move forward, particularly around funding relationships.
The incubator has been a significant catalyst for me to identify my key goals for the next few months and develop a set of workable steps to achieve them. I hadn’t previously given myself the time and space I deserve to consider what I really want. I have been operating without questioning assumptions that got me to where I am in the first place.
Now, I am more confident of my next steps, both in terms of PizzaPlex and exploring building a network of investors in women- and POC-owned businesses.
The last post not only honed my empathy for the “non-Neapolitan pizza customer” (what we in the industry call the NNPCs) (just kidding), but also resulted in some fantastic questions and considerations from commenters that I am so grateful to have received. Based on the past few weeks of listening, learning, and deliberating, I will pursue the following next steps by end of 2019 for PizzaPlex to accelerate its conversion to a worker-owned business:
Develop a comprehensive marketing plan in collaboration with the team, especially soliciting help from our new Events & Partnerships manager (formerly our Operations Manager). This will give me the opportunity to develop the customer profile – who is our customer, and who will our customers become? I will also finally make time to consider and articulate/document clearly all that PizzaPlex has to offer beyond the delicious product itself – catering services, event space, and programming.
More actively consider next steps from our conversion consultants (Center for Community Based Enterprise, or C2BE). C2BE has provided guidelines for what we need to consider long-term to enable our conversion to worker ownership. While we all know how important this is, we have had trouble imagining the future in the pursuit to keep doors open today. I can at least make sure we are clear on the specific questions we need to answer to prepare for that future conversion.
Continue refining our messaging. Sometimes, I feel our value proposition or description of our Edges gets lost in complex wording. It took the team a long time to land on Pizza – People – Planet. What else can we do?
Theory of Change: Invest in women, improve world
A friend and I have been meeting regularly to ask each other questions and challenge the notion of what a network/fund for investment in women- and POC-owned businesses could be.
Our agreed-to next steps are:
Complete the Ship-it Journal! And compare our notes
Get smarter on alternative forms of investment and community capital (I know some experts in this cohort I might want to consult!)
Benchmark and learn more about a few Detroit-based investment companies and community organizations, national VCs/investment companies that focus on women and POCs, the legal constraints of alternative investment vehicles (lawyer friends – we will be looking at you)
Survey local women entrepreneurs leading all sizes/types of ventures with the following preliminary questions: Do you feel your business needs more capital (outside investment)? How would additional funding help? What is preventing you from obtaining it now? What does your business need to succeed?
Interview local experts/investors in women- and POC-owned businesses; understand where gaps are
The plan for this network is to do as much research as we can before the end of the year, recognizing we will have a number of action items and meetings that carry over into early 2020.
Staying in touch
I am so grateful for the opportunity to have written and publicly posted my ideas and plans. I’ve never seriously blogged before, and certainly not with the same level of consistency! (Yes. I realize it has only been once a week for six weeks.) I would love to stay in touch with other incubator participants through our continued writing, comments, and reflection, if CPA is willing to maintain the WordPress site for that express purpose! This allows for low-pressure stakes to contribute, read, and comment – all with the goal of generously supporting when and how we can, from wherever we find ourselves! I’m looking forward to staying in touch with all participants and following the important work you are all doing.
I’d love to tackle a larger feasibility study; sadly, this week is not the week. The good news is tomorrow I meet with a lead organizer for the local IAF organizer to map out potential connections. That could open dozens of doors all at once – hopefully a mix of large, mid-sized, and smaller faith institutions.
The next step is a bunch of one-on-ones, trust building, and data gathering. The Incubator has helped me feel more prepared for those conversations with a deeper analysis around relational meeting, and a much clearer sense of what questions to ask. The questions in the final tabs of the Prompt 6 Mini-Feasibility Study spreadsheet are super clear and helpful, if you haven’t checked them out already.
If I can match Carrie’s speed of analysis and opportunity hunting (high fives!), that could put us on track for our first group purchase in February or March. April or May may be the right time for a second group purchase and formal founding.
With that pace, we’d be able to map out a timeline to profitability. I have some concerns around a quick path to profitability since many institutions in Cleveland are smaller and more financially strapped than many faith institutions in cities on the coast, I assume. Still we’re going to plow ahead with the existing, relatively cohesive networks of faith institutions through the IAF and other networks and see where it takes us.
I think what I find most intimidating about this whole process is the idea of my personally seeing all the details through on arranging contracts for institutions that join CPA Cleveland. Details are not my strength. I do not know contracts well. It will take a lot of focus for me to stick with the details in the meaningful way that allows CPA Cleveland to do right by its member institutions. The experienced CPA people who will be able to support us help me feel confident for this challenge.
I’m also excited to tackle this challenge with other folks in the Incubator! I’ve enjoyed getting to know all of you. I’d like to stay in touch. How about every two weeks open house Zoom chats to update each other on progress and help address pressing questions?
By the end of my 8th week now and I’ve done 20. I can up that rate.
These 1:1s are with church pastors, synagogue directors, community organizers, potential providers, civic leaders, people I hope will help champion the work, etc
I find the in-person meetings take about 1.5 hours, and I much prefer in person to phone. Setting the meeting up, preparing, then follow-up takes another couple hours each
Gathered 40 electric bills
From the 20 meetings I’ve had so far, 8 of them have resulted in sharing electric bills. The other meetings weren’t directly applicable to electric bill gathering. I have an 100% success rate of asking for bills in person and receiving them later (aka nobody says no), although it often takes follow-up.
I hope to get more bills both from more focus on relevant in-person meetings, and also by connecting with larger networks of institutions that can make the ask for me:
GBIO? – I plan to follow up with everyone on the first two calls and see who I’m still missing bills from. Maybe a list email here to see if that gets traction
MATSA – Massachusetts Association of Temples and Synagogue Administrators – meeting with them next week
Episcopal Archdiocese – cold lead from someone I hope to find direct contact with
Roslindale Leaders meeting – going tomorrow
Set date for a group Zoom meeting of all who have submitted electric bills
Facilitated group Zoom meeting of 6-10 institutions interested in a trash hauling RFP
I’ve discovered that this is a major issue for several institutions. CPA’s success with this in other regions makes it a good next step
Involves finding a lawyer to help with breaking contracts and establishing relationships with new trash hauling providers
Group in-person meeting of those who could be a “steering committee” for CPA Boston. Also a way to engage new people. Already met with several people who I could see being champions in this
Yes, this post is tardy. I don’t have any apologies to offer. I will say, though, that analysis paralysis is real and that sometimes the best way to get started with something is to just start :).
As I mentioned in my intro video as well as in my first post, as part of my day job, I manage a network of business support organizations (BSOs), all nonprofits and CDFIs that serve small business owners in Detroit. The network was convened as part of a broader, philanthropy-led initiative to promote entrepreneurship in the Detroit region. The initiative emphasizes creating more on-ramps and supports for minority and women owned entrepreneurs to participate; “Inclusion” or “an inclusive economy” are terms often used in messaging around the initiative.
Of course the elites at the helm of these foundations are the best equipped to define what it means to foster an inclusive economy and the roadmap for getting there….(for a critical analysis of this idea, see this).
Anyway, the network that I manage is made up of BSOs who tend to serve entrepreneurs with fewer resources and supports. They come together through committees and quarterly gatherings to connect around their work and also galvanize around higher-level issues impacting Detroit’s entrepreneurs at more of a systemic level like creating greater access to capital and more equitable access to commercial real estate.
As I’ve mentioned, in my view, the broader initiative and many members of the BSO network are focused on making “business as usual” accessible to more people. This work is not about transforming the fundamentals of the economy, how we do business or economic development. It’s about making sure that aspiring and current women and minority owned business owners have the supports needed to gain a seat at a broken table.
What does this look like in practice? I once moderated a panel in which an entrepreneur stated that he was frustrated that when he approached multiple BSOs about wanting to scale up manufacturing of his product, they wanted to help him get set up to have the manufacturing done oversees. The entrepreneur, however is a proud Detroiter, who very much wants to use his business to invest in the community. He wants to use space in Detroit and hire Detroiters to manufacture his goods.
The idea of “community wealth building” is certainly not a priority for the .001%ers at the helm of these organizations (who probably have to represent the interests of founders and boards who are probably the .000001%ers). It’s also not an articulated priority for members of the BSO network, which is more perplexing.
For this exercise, I’ll try to get inside of their heads.
Why isn’t “community wealth building” (here: practices which prioritize investment in local institutions, local people, local spaces) a top priority for members of the network?
Philosophy/Belief: The goal of a business is to be profitable. At my organization, we view our work as helping entrepreneurs launch businesses that can be profitable and sustainable. There are organizations at the periphery of the network who talk about co-ops and things like that, but that’s not our focus.
Funding: The funder led initiative has funded my organization for the past 5 years to provide xyz technical assistance to entrepreneurs. They’ve become a large part of our funding portfolio, such that we don’t have funding to do other entrepreneurship programs that are not related to the initiative. How, then, am I supposed to have time and capacity to talk to entrepreneurs about structuring their businesses so that they’re paying a living wage, etc.? I’m in the same boat as many people from peer organizations within the network. Most of us rely on the initiative for a large chunk of our annual budgets. Also, I can’t help but notice that none of the organizations that participate in the network who come from organizations that talk about community wealth or co-ops receive funding from the initiative. If the funder isn’t interested and my organization doesn’t have the time or expertise to work with entrepreneurs to get them to understand why it’s important and how they can structure their businesses from a community wealth building lens, why would I bring the topic up in our committees or gatherings?
Priorities: When we set the annual priorities that the network will work on collaboratively, we start by sharing the most consistent or pressing needs that we hear from entrepreneurs in our day to day work. At my organization, we encounter entrepreneurs who want to achieve profitability or increase their profits. We talk to entrepreneurs all the time who were unsuccessful in accessing loans to build their businesses. We hear every day from them about how they’re sales would be better if they just had better marketing to reach more customers. What we don’t see as much is business owners (or aspiring business owners) coming to us because they want to know how to most effectively reinvest the wealth being generated through their businesses into the communities they serve or into their workers. We spend out time covering the basics that businesses need to be sustainable; “community wealth building”, therefore, is low on our priority list.
This exercise was helpful. Given this reality, I wonder whether/to what extent the organizations that DO prioritize investing locally, investing in workers, etc. can come together to create their own network and either attract funding from like-minded funders or pool their resources to start pushing their own agenda.
RS – Thank you for your questions and insights, Jessica and Michelle! Ironically, when I wrote this post, I didn’t think about what this could mean for me personally, as in, I didn’t write it with the intention of acting. I started the Incubator thinking of it as an escape/breath of fresh air from the dynamics of my day job, not a way to get better insight into how I could rethink my work. When I read “to help these BSO’s join you on this journey” and questions related to approaches that I might take (talking to the program officer, talking one on one to the BSOs), I started to see that I could possibly have a role in trying to shift the dynamic, rather than just complaining on the side lines. As it happens, I have a pretty good rapport with our program officer and he’s definitely someone with whom I could have a conversation about this. I think the biggest hurdle to making any movement in terms of trying to leverage this platform that I manage to advance an agenda from any side (i.e.working with BSOs who are grantees, the community wealth building advocates on the fringe, the funder) has been me mentally having put that part of my work in a box labeled with things like “missed opportunity”, “case study: what’s wrong with the nonprofit sector”, “to the extent possible, avoid thinking about this”. Maybe it is time for me to get in the game and try to create the change that I want to see!
First, it is only fitting – and, hopefully, not eye-rolling – that I request empathy of my fellow cohort members for my tardy post this week. I spent most of the past few days asleep and resting, home from work, afflicted by some unknown ailment from which I am only now recovering. I apologize for not routing my energies to my post before Wednesday to provide you all with more time for review and comment as all of you have done despite your own busy schedules.
One of my goals for this incubator is to convert PizzaPlex to worker ownership in 2020. The dependency upon which all conversion activities rests are improved financials. In this scenario, the exercise of showing empathy for people who buy from our competitors only makes for critical competitive analysis – so I welcome this activity with open arms.
Why People Who Eat Non-PizzaPlex Pizza Are Right
First, before I empathize with the non-PlexPeople, a word on PizzaPlex (ok, this part is actually very many words):
The mission of PizzaPlex L3C (low-profit LLC, a structure of incorporation in Michigan that – despite its name – does not mean the LLC is subject to low profit only, but that it can offer a social benefit along with striving for profit) is to serve delicious pizza while uplifting people and planet. We offer pay-it-forward programs where any individual can redeem a free pizza, food, or coffee – no questions asked. We scale this up for community organizations who need pizzas for their meetings or events. Our customers have helped us serve hundreds of pizza at no-cost to non-profits and Detroiters since opening in September 2017. Our entire restaurant reduces, reuses, and recycles, and is the second entity in the entire city to leverage a green infrastructure credit program with the water department. We compost all our organic scraps and even accept residents’ compostables in case they do not have access to composting. We throw out the equivalent of less than two residential bins of trash per month because we reuse, recycle, or compost the rest. These are some examples of our regard for people and planet.
So, back to the product: PIZZA. PizzaPlex is Detroit’s first and only pizzeria serving certified Vera Pizza Napoletana (VPN). This means, the pizzeria applied for and received approval from a third-party entity known as the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (AVPN) that the restaurant is preparing pizza in a centuries-old style from Naples, Italy, that uses specific ingredients (e.g. finely milled flour called 00 flour, certain types of tomatoes, cheese, and yeast, etc.) and employs very precise equipment and techniques for baking. We have an oven from Naples in the restaurant that blisters each pizza curst at nearly 800 degrees F for less than two minutes. Pizzas must be approx. 12” wide and have a softer, chewier dough compared to US-style pizza – making individual slice sales very difficult or infeasible.
Our head pizzaiuolo has worked in a pizzeria in Naples. Photos of my Neapolitan grandparents adorn our walls as an homage to everything they did to provide me with the opportunity to share the culture of Naples in Detroit. The AVPN president made me a personalized video indicating how proud he was that I representing Naples globally.
So, as the resident Neapolitan whose extended family still resides in Naples while operating a pizzeria throughout my childhood, VPN certification was a must for any pizza business I started. In the spirit of “seeing the other side,” I’ll quote Chicago’s Giordano’s pizzeria history of pizza to explain why, beyond the cultural familiarity of the food, Vera Pizza Napoletana holds significance related to the mission of our social enterprise, to make delicious food accessible to all:
Naples was a thriving port city, and the areas near the waterfront were crowded with the working class. These people, many of whom were quite poor, had few places to cook. They often heated large, flat stones to cook flatbread, then topped the bread with cheese, meat and other items. Because they had to hurry back to work, they folded the cooked flatbread up into a pocket and ate it later, or ate it as they walked. The very first pizzeria was founded in the year 1760 in Naples. Da Pietro pizzeria opened its doors in Naples to sell their inexpensive flatbread concoctions to hungry dock workers.
In 2017, Unesco designated the art of the pizzaiuolo, or pizza maker, world heritage status. “The pizzaiuolo craft has been handed down for generations, Unesco said, and encompasses the social ritual of songs, stories and gestures that takes place between pizza makers (‘pizzaiuoli’) and diners in working class Neapolitan neighbourhoods.”
For me, pizza is personal. Pizza represents access and the right of all people to high quality, delicious food. I’m not naive to recognize classism in commerce. But I believe pizza is symbolic of a story that refuses to compromise quality for means. As a good Neapolitan, it’s a borderline irrational mantra.
And now, the moment we’ve all been waiting for. The competitor’s customer is right because…
They don’t consider PizzaPlex pizza “pizza.” I spent paragraphs above explaining how “different” the VPN pizza is. A person in Detroit or the Detroit area familiar with pizza more commonly found in the US has many examples of pizza as it is traditionally known in this country, but – guess what – virtually no examples outside of PizzaPlex.* If a pizza customer is craving a pizza, what is the opportunity cost of trying something drastically different, and not at all obtaining what you expected? That can be high risk with such a notorious comfort food like pizza. I presume the majority of pizza-ingesting people in the Metro Detroit area would fall under this category.
They are confused by PizzaPlex. Is this place a non-profit? (I’ve heard this question before in the restaurant.) Are you a charity? (Heard this one too.) I’m confused – where is the event? (Did I mention we are also a community event space?) Again, I spent paragraphs explaining our mission and the cultural importance of the food we prepare. To whom else does this matter? Is what we are doing clear? Or are we confusing people in our messaging?
They have never heard of PizzaPlex. While we have some amazing regulars (thank you, dear, wonderful return customers!), we have been struggling with marketing and reaching new audiences. Am I demonstrating obliviousness by saying we might be a niche business?
They don’t care about the bla bla bla acronyms and the Naples hoopla and the fancy imported ingredients. Try as we might to stress the mission, the affordability (our pizzas range from $5 to $14 for a full pie), that might not matter to someone interested in good food. Could we be alienating potential customers by celebrating what makes us different?
They want a slice of pizza. We don’t sell individual slices.
They want pepperoni. We don’t serve pepperoni. And when we start to explain that our spicy salame is close to pepperoni, would they like to try it? They check out. Don’t underestimate people’s love for pepperoni.
They don’t like it. And when you only have occasion to try it once (literally) – it may be a hard sell to come back for it and give it another shot.
They don’t want to travel to a specific neighborhood for pizza when they could access different styles of pizza much closer. We are in a neighborhood of Detroit and even our Grubhub delivery radius only goes so far.
They have other pizzeria choices down the street from PizzaPlex in either direction. None of them are VPN-certified, but they may be a closer fit for that customer. Is our value proposition, our “edge,” strong enough to lure them away from their tried and true choice? Probably not.
They can’t try our food during our open hours. We are open Wednesdays through Saturdays, from 4 pm to 11 pm. Unfortunately, we can’t afford to be open during lunch hours or other times on the weekend. We might be missing a segment of potential customers as a result.
What am I missing? Why is the competitor’s customer right?
* The first and only other AVPN-certified pizzeria in Michigan is in the Metro Detroit area; however, this is about 30 – 40 min away from PizzaPlex
RS – My reflection for this post is delayed, yet, this marks one of the posts whose comments surprised me the most and with which I had to sit longest. The messages were straightforward, simple, and clear. I think what I was not expecting was the depth of perspective hearing about the business both from the eyes of those familiar and those out of state, less familiar with PizzaPlex. Reading others’ impressions of a venture that I feel is so intimate and personal always gives me pause.
I appreciated the warm response to the vision and commitment of the business. Knowing the CPA incubator includes kindred souls who are motivated first by equity and radical transformation of broken systems, I felt so affirmed that my (long) post communicated the PizzaPlex mission in a way that like-minded people could digest (pun intended and I’m not ashamed).
I also appreciated the very practical tips commenters provided. Yes to all of the above! I had considered the suggested ideas in passing before, but seeing them succinctly captured in writing is invaluable for me. This incubator reminds me how I tend to overwhelm myself unnecessarily; that if I take things one step at a time with the long-term goal in mind but not stopping me before I start, I can accomplish more than I expect.
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